It is somewhat taken for granted that the art of painting allows us to engage intimately with the work of another’s hand and eye. Some might even suggest through the marks and traces locked in the gestures and dispersal of paint on canvas, we are witness to some special marriage of spirit and matter. As makers and viewers of paintings, artists have always exploited these contrary sensations of the public and private at work in the mind during the act of looking. Are you a voyeur or co-conspirator? Lover or fellow member of the dispossessed? Intrigue, desire for narrative and the visual unravelling of secrets all elicit deep fascination, bound up as they are in the articulation of the medium itself. Figurative painting’s power, to a lesser or greater degree, hinges on the frisson of implied intimacy or its denial. But what about abstract painting? It was these sorts of questions that kept coming to mind as I walked round Power Stations, the show of mostly large scale abstract paintings by John Hoyland spanning the period 1964 to the very early 80s.
The tension between the public and private roles of art intensified in the debates around abstract painting in the post-war period. In fact there is something faintly absurd about the size of Hoyland’s paintings in at least the first 4 rooms of the Newport St. gallery. They portend to the dimensions of great history paintings, yet give us such little detail or sniff of a narrative of any kind. ‘Handling’ is reduced to a minimum, either locked into a deep staining of the canvas or in the masking-off of flat, high-keyed ‘blocks’ of colour. Their size is institutional, municipal, dare I say it, communal. Overtly public in their forthrightness and seeming simplicity, they ask to be shared as visual experiences by the many rather than owned by the one or the very few (unless you are a millionaire artist-come-collector-come-property-developer with mansions of large dimensions – but more on that later).
The mural sized paintings that became so familiar with the rise of Abstract Expressionism are an obvious early influence on Hoyland’s mature work. It’s well known that Hoyland spent much time in the US seeking out, learning from and challenging the American trial-blazers of abstraction and their ‘colour field’ inheritors. (And he was not the only one.) But Hoyland’s work first appeared on the British art scene in dialogue with artists experimenting with colour, size and scale but with very different ambitions for their work than those of the dominant Americans. For sure, we can see the direct influence of both Rothko and Newman. But these American artists had invited criticism for their scaled up intimations of ‘tragedy’ or ‘heroism’ that could so easily degenerate into pretentious and high minded procrastination. And many artists were questioning this almost maniacal obsession with the artist’s own subjectivity and ‘vision’. Maybe a sentimental haze has descended over many of the ideas around in the 50s and early 60s and the general optimism of what has been termed the ‘post-war consensus’ in this country. Hoyland, like many other young British artists at this time, benefited from that ever so slight relaxation in the ‘entry rules’ to a snobbish, uptight, class bound, nepotistic art world. There were other difficult ideas in the air too. Art, it was said, just like higher education, should be for everyone; these ideas would become the basis for the ensuing battles/confusions between cultural democracy and the democratisation of culture over the coming decades. In fact, from this point onwards, what started as a fissure in the side of an ailing cultural establishment turns into an ever widening gap between the reality of new rapid cultural change and what was taken for granted by the hopelessly backward looking parochial art world which was then so quickly replaced by the self serving rhetoric of a transatlantic ‘high’ modernist art.
Hoyland’s 60s paintings remain on the cusp of these huge changes. We look back at them as through a dark prism from our own historical time and space. My contention is that by emphasising Hoyland’s connections to a transatlantic formalist kind of art we are denying his connection to another more critical and socially-engaged set of values at work in another strand of DNA locked in the fabric of this earlier work.
That different batch of DNA can be found in the work of Hoyland’s more immediate predecessors and contemporaries like Robyn Denny and Richard Smith and many others who made abstract art that looked toward modern architecture and design – combining these interests with a hard edged pop sensibility. Although seemingly austere in their simplicity and directness these British artists were investigating notions of play, improvisation and collaboration. Experimenting with the materials that make up the very fabric of the modern world, they were pushing at the limits of any given medium and loosening the grip of the individual artist’s ego. Compare this approach to the now well documented self-flagellation and paranoid resentment Rothko tortured himself with while working on the Seagram murals commission! Was Hoyland also trying to get away from ‘the great British landscape tradition’ and the more rustic-type lyricism at work in older artists like Heron and Lanyon? This new generation of British artists began seeing painting as a place for devising a dialogue between artist and viewer by combining pictorial space and the viewer’s own sense of lived space. This was achieved by experimenting with size and scale that echo bodily stance and the architectural proportions of the new urban environment. Colour tended toward close-toned and high keyed relations that would suggest optical throbs and undulations in large fields of intense contrasting or competing hues. The artist’s personal ‘touch’ or handwriting became secondary to this end.
These artists wanted to engage the eye in constant readjustments between shape and surface – heightening awareness of the complex circuitry of perception constantly reconnecting the eye to the mind and the body. From this perspective I found the earlier works in the first four rooms of this exhibition far more exciting than the later paintings in the last two rooms. These later works feel somehow backward looking, no matter how locked in and finished they are. I love ‘craft’ and the highly considered – but it is interesting to note the shift of emphasis in the later works such as Longspeak 18.4.79 to a smaller scaled, highly worked and more complex interpenetration of colour relations. It’s well known that paint handling can be the first thing to suffer when working on large-scale canvases. While wanting to court visual impact, gestural attack so easily becomes overblown and prone to theatricality. 28.2.71 and other works in the penultimate room suffer here, even if the convulsive handling and fleshy tones are a fascinating combination. Conversely though, painting over large areas of canvas in one colour can create deadening and monotonous surfaces. Artists working with the ‘field’ approach dealt with this by melting gesture into the stain and building up many and highly complex liquid thin layers of different colours in the hope of deepening colour intensities and contrasts in one large surface. I think 9.11.68 and 29.11.66 seem much more daring in this respect.
By the middle of the 70s there had been some kind of burn-out in the visual possibilities of the ‘high’ modernist trajectory. In terms of art history it is often asserted that Hoyland’s intention was to combine a supposedly American ambition for painting (which is often mentioned in terms of the size and scale of the mural and the freedom of the individual) with the never quite abstract easel painting found in the more northern European sensibilities of de Stael or the exiled German in America, Hofmann. But did this attempted transatlantic synthesis take Hoyland beyond that burn out? So where next then for abstract painting? One way forward was to go backwards – to retreat from the public dialogical role of art, to reassert the lyrical impetus in painting that sits so cosily with the idea of the artist’s private vision. There was also, at this time in Britain, a burn-out in the optimism created by post-war socialist governments and the satisfactions promised by the rise of the consumer society. By the 1980s this went hand in hand with the rise of a new found conservatism (with a small and capital C) pronounced by the likes of Roger Scruton and Hilton Kramer and emboldened by a general rise of the Right in politics.
Here in the second decade of the 21st century, Hirst’s patronage of Hoyland’s art is intriguing. I mention this because what interests me is what historically separates them as artists. One seemed primed for success in an age of optimism and change; the other’s career was forged in a new epoch of cynicism and doubt about the edifying role of art and its new-found relationship with money. Our new world order is built on what seemed like the final victory of capitalism, the rapid demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of the new global free market economies. I think the implications of this generational shift from the post-war consensus to a neoliberal one are somehow evoked in this snapshot of Hoyland’s legacy caught here in Newport St.
My old Marxist teachers told me that by the early 80s institutions, galleries and exhibitions had become little more than the residue of the political and commercial machinations operating behind and/or maintaining the facade of what is taken for granted now as ‘the culture industry’. It could then go on to be argued that this is why so many artists turned away from that transatlantic kind of ‘high’ modernism and went on to scrutinise these machinations. They shifted their emphasis from the work itself to analysing the way we are ‘allowed’ to perceive ‘art’ both in its making and in its dissemination. But all that wasn’t enough for some, even of the Left. Some couldn’t reduce art to a set of ideological imperatives or critiques – but nor could they let their belief in the communicative power of abstract art be lost in a self-referential hall of mirrors or ever decreasing circles of pastiche and irony. It was Hoyland who, amongst a few others, presented a benchmark, a standard of commitment to abstract painting.
Conceptualism has failed to fully transform our experience of art. It has been utterly absorbed by the machine it set out to question. Abstract painting still retains deeply subversive tendencies because it undermines the power of language to control meaning. But are these tendencies born of the thoroughly private and personal vision of the artist as individual? No, I don’t think they are. Is Hoyland’s importance as an artist locked in the overt handling, the indexical mark-making that dominate his later paintings? No, I don’t think it is. Paintings have an uncanny habit of leaking alternative and disruptive meanings or knocking our sense of historical time and place off kilter. They have the ability to somehow unravel the tightly wound power of dominant discourses on ‘art’ instead of simply being ciphers that re-enforce them. Some might argue that this subversive ambition is too big an ask of painters painting now – but I guess that this is what I wanted and hoped for from this show. I didn’t get that jolt from the later more crafted ‘painterly’ paintings that seem so wrapped up in their own surfaces, handling and historicism though. I got it from the earlier overtly open, public and declarative ones.